Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Rediscovering the edge

It's been a while since I've really pushed a race effort. There were the weeks of marathon training, the weeks of not-training, a week or two of a chest cold, then the marathon itself, which, while a hard effort for sure, was not the sort of hard effort that makes you bleed from your eyeballs and scrabble in the dirt as the lactic acid demons drag you down. Those sorts of efforts need to be consumed in moderation, of course, but if you don't taste them from time to time, you lose the ability to savor that racing edge.

With my knee on the mend, it looks like I'll actually be able to do the races on my horizon. Three weekends of orienteering National Events, and a couple cross country races with my junior skiers. The skills that need refreshing right now are some basic navigation, and some re-familiarization with the pain cave.

The first stop was Pawtuckaway State Park, for UNO's famed Camping Weekend. I love this weekend, mostly for its infamous Wicked Hahd Night O. But, I actually decided to try and keep my knee on the healing track, as opposed to the more-broken track, and chose to just do one race at Pawtuckaway, instead of the usual three races. Bummer, being smart isn't nearly as much fun as making bad decisions!

My goal for the run was to stay focused on good technique the entire time. Exit direction, and make a plan. I wanted to try and do these things under a little bit of stress, because anybody can orienteer well at slow speed if you think about it enough. So, time to apply some oomph. Click below for the full map:

In general, things went well. I was forcing myself to look at my compass, and sometimes it told me to go directions that I didn't want to go, but if I listened to it, I would arrive in the right place. Useful little tool, that. I had a lot of hesitations along the way, some of them because I hadn't fully visualized my plan yet, and some of them just because I couldn't read the map while running. Never my strongest suit, it was definitely the first skill to go. Below is a zoomed-in version of some of the map, with a bit of annotation from the brain of Alex -

Prime example of how quickly orienteering skills go rusty. The green is where I'm running with some degree of oomph, yellow is sort of a slow confused jog, and red is... not fast. Also, beautiful map layout, with the label for control 12 overlapping the control 1 circle and its line... you just can't unsee this sort of shit.

Leaving the start, I had had a moment of panic - omg, I'm alone in the woods, and I don't know where I am! It didn't take more than 15-20 seconds to remember that it doesn't matter where I am, just where I'm going and how to get there, and then things were a little smoother. It was so much fun to run through the woods again, and I was pleased to find some bounce in my legs and that I hadn't lost all my ability to duck and weave and bash and jump. There's hope for next weekend if I can listen to my compass and make a plan for each leg. I was winning the course by about nine minutes when I left, but results aren't online yet, so I don't know how I fared in the end.

Next step was a little exploration of the pain cave. The CSU juniors were running an uphill test at Wachusett Mountain on Sunday, so it was time to join them. After a pretty solid warmup, my knee was complaining a little with all the bending. I decided that it was probably going to be fine; this wasn't pain, just some swelling interfering with normal movement, and uphills aren't fast enough to really hurt things. We had a good crowd there, with a number of hardcore parents joining their hardcore kids, and the weather was perfect. 

The time trial goes up the road, which is actually pretty flat except for two pitches. We started out, and like any uphill time trial, there isn't much strategy. I started near the back, and slowly moved up toward midpack by the time we got to the junction. After you turn the corner it's steep for a little while, and I did not feel efficient. Unused to this much suffering, my brain was asking perfectly reasonable questions, like "can we stop now?" and "what if we just slow down a little?" So, I went a little faster, because clearly if my brain can think reasonably, I'm allowing it too much oxygen. As we neared the top, I was definitely anaerobic, and it was sort of sad how little speed was garnered for so much effort. But, you have to start somewhere, and spending 19 minutes peering around the pain cave and dusting some of the cobwebs near the entrance isn't bad for a day's work. 
The "bonus trip up the hill" kids on top of Wachusett.

After another trip up, this time on trails and more of a threshold effort, I was good and done. My knee felt a little complain-y, but with no pain, I'm feeling positive about being able to compete successfully next weekend at Letchworth. I don't have a huge amount of fitness to back me up, but this weekend assured me that I can still muster a little speed if I need to.
My orienteering skills are about as unused as this pitchfork in our garden. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Quebec City Marathon

After injuring my knee, I didn't think I'd be running the marathon I'd signed up for. Even if my knee were recovered by race day, I had done exactly 14 miles of running over those 33 days, none of it pain-free, and was feeling the effects of being completely out of shape. I had been on a bit of an accelerated marathon plan, transitioning from my usual mountain running fun to road miles for 12 weeks, and to miss five of those weeks meant I would find no success in this race. To put it simply, I was completely unready to run a marathon.

I knew this. My marathon-running friends knew this. My coaching buddies knew this. And yet, Ed and I went to Quebec, because I wanted to give it a shot anyway.

My intention was mostly to have a nice tourist-y weekend in a city that I'd never visited in summer. We nailed that, and had a truly lovely weekend, filled with walking, eating, drinking, and enjoying each other's company. I'd rented an Airbnb in Lévis, the city across the river from Quebec, within walking distance of the ferry over to Quebec City, which costs less than an MBTA bus. It was perfect, and we had a really nice Friday night wandering the old city. Saturday was more of the same, with a vague goal of finding the race expo to pick up my number, and then finding a poutine place I'd read about on a blog where the blogger was searching for the best poutine in Quebec City. We were not disappointed! The other very important find of the weekend was a chocolate shop in Lévis that made the best chocolate-dipped ice cream I have ever eaten in my life. This shop featured prominently in my motivation during the race on Sunday.

View from the Lévis side of the river.

The big one was for Ed, the little one for me. Very enjoyable hibiscus blond ale! 

Funicular! Had to take it to save my legs, and also because a certain engineer needed to see how it worked from the inside.

Hotel Frontenac, lit up by night

This city has such great walkable streets

Elm trees!! I don't think I've ever seen a live elm before. 

View from across the river. Apparently many hundreds of cannonballs were shot from this position at various points of history.

Poutine, from the Snack Shack. 

One of several poor decisions to finish something this weekend.

That chocolate shell was like 1/4" thick, no joke. This was the hazelnut version.

After a quiet night in, it was time to start thinking about this long run I was doing on Sunday. I'd been sort of ignoring it, trying not to think about how unprepared I was. At some level, I knew it was a bad idea to start the race, but I also knew that I'd kick myself if I didn't try. My Physical Therapist hadn't thought that I'd be doing any structural damage if I ran, but advised to let pain be my guide. My race plan, such as it was, was to head out at the slowest pace that would still qualify me for Boston. I had 5k splits written on my arm, to keep me honest. If I started to drop below those splits, I was to drop from the race.

4:30 rolled around and I had no trouble getting down oatmeal and coffee. The lack of nerves almost scared me, but I realized that meant I had the right attitude - it was just going to be a waiting game, and see what my legs do. Ed dropped me off at the start, and it was downright chilly, but I knew I'd warm up. The race had people wearing rabbit ears, who were the pace bunnies, and after an easy warmup, I lined up a couple rows behind the 3:30 bunny. Off we went, and it felt similar to the ultras that I've done, just chilling with a bunch of other people, some chitchat, the pattering of feet. The 3:30 bunny was running closer to 7:40 than 8-minute pace, so I dropped back, monitoring my own pace and heartrate. My knee had no feels, happy to jog along.

The course started up on top of the plateau, and after an ever-so-slight rise, it cruised downhill for the next couple miles. This part was great, the game was all about not running too fast, and the cool weather and lack of any fatigue in my legs (see, there are *some* upsides to not doing any training, whatsoever, before your marathon!) made me feel pretty awesome. Ed was cheering for me at around 7mi, and seeing him gave me a warm fuzzy.

At that point, though, the course flattened out along the river. There was a bit of a headwind, and without the downhill to carry me along, I started to notice my lack of fitness. My heart rate started to climb, even though I was still holding the pace fine. I knew that if my heart rate got much above my anaerobic threshold, I would be cooked, but I also knew that slowing down wasn't an option in this race plan. Go at that pace until you can't hold it anymore. I did have a bit of a time buffer thanks to the easy early miles, but as the work started to accumulate, I knew I was in trouble. The halfway point was still on pace, but I was working way too hard.

Shortly after the halfway point, the course started to climb, gradually, back up the embankment to cross the route 173 bridge. This is where my fitness ran out. I could fake it for 14 miles, but that was where it ended. I did some walking up the hills, willing my heartrate back down to a sustainable level, but I knew that this was probably the end of my Boston shot. Coming across the bridge, the blister under my toe started to become unbearable, and my hips started to tighten up. Curse this lack of running training! At this point, according to my plan, I was supposed to drop out. I had just dropped a 28-min 5k, and there was no reason to believe that it would get any better. But my race brain managed to convince my legs that maybe they'd pick up the pace again coming off the bridge. You're right! Downhills are awesome!

So then I was down from the bridge, and both hip abductors cramped up, violently. Oof. There was some point, coming down from that bridge, where I had decided that I wanted to finish this thing. I knew at that point that I was done - I could not speed up, not without my legs cramping up. But, what is eight miles in the grand scheme of things? I should be able to tough this out. I want to finish this marathon. I'm an idiot. So, I kept moving, and the abductor cramps faded, to be replaced with adductor cramps, off and on. I had been walking through all the aid stations the whole race, to drink down the entirety of my cup of water or gatorade or whatever it was I was needing at that moment, but now I was starting to walk for longer periods through the aids. Again, should have just dropped. The next muscles to go was the right calf, exhausted from trying to protect my gimpy right ankle. My hamstrings were threatening, but since I wasn't really striding anymore, just sorta shuffling, those were holding out. I started to walk more. Soon forced myself into a rhythm - run 180 strides, walk 45. I did more pace counting in that last 10k than I've done in my entire orienteering career.

The last 10k were terrible. I mean, I should have expected this. There is no reason to believe that I should be able to run a marathon after five weeks of not training, and on a pretty minimal plan before that. It was just my head pushing me to the end. I just wanted to say I had done it. Why?!? Every time I tried to move faster, some muscle in my leg would protest by cramping violently, so even the running parts were barely moving. But I couldn't let myself stop. Eventually I crossed the line, and my pride was utterly shattered. I was nearly an hour slower than I had wanted or needed to be. I did not belong there remotely. Why do I have these ridiculous ideas about finishing races? Why can't I do the reasonable thing and drop out when it makes sense? I guess nothing hurt badly enough to actually do that.

Ed was waiting for me at the finish, and managed not to laugh too badly at my distress as I tried to put on sandals with every leg muscle cramping. We very slowly made our way back 2km to the ferry, and I think that slow waddle was very good for my recovery, considering the next activity would be to sit in a car for 7 hours. Ed is the real hero, for doing all the driving!

The chocolate dipping options at the chocolate ice cream shop.

But before the car ride home, chocolate-dipped ice cream! Boy was that ever tasty.